The Experience of Manual Laborers: At the Bottom of the Rail in Gary

In 1910, 49.1% of Gary’s population was born outside the U.S. 71% of the population was either foreign-born or born in the U.S. with at least one parent who was born outside the U.S. Most of the manual workers at Gary Works were immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe. Others settled in Gary as well. Roughly 400 African Americans had settled there when US Steel founded the city in 1906. By 1920, that population had grown to over 5,000 permanent residents. Mexican laborers were one of the last groups of foreign born to arrive in Gary, brought in by the mills beginning in 1919 to work during the steel strike. The Mexican population was 3.5% in 1930, which was a very high percentage for any city outside the Southwest United States at this time.

While many of these workers would have been labeled as “unskilled” by US Steel, which designated “lowest paid,” they came with tremendous skills in a wide variety of arenas. We will call them manual workers because of the physically demanding nature of the work they did at the mills, but evidence of their skill is woven throughout their stories.

Most manual workers were only able to find housing in the Patch section of Gary, south of the First Subdivision. Immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe stayed mostly to the west and east side of Broadway gathering close to those of the same nationality who shared language and culture. They created their own neighborhoods, printed their own newspapers, and built their own businesses and churches. The builders amongst them, who brought their masonry skills with them, constructed many of Gary’s buildings. Their companies also built many homes for workers.

Immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe arrived here not knowing the English language or American customs. The steel mill, for example, printed their rules and regulations manuals in a variety of languages. As was the case in other American cities at this time, buildings known as “settlement houses” were established in Gary to assist them, serving as social gathering places, providing medical care, and encouraging them to adapt to life in the United States. The Gary schools also taught English to the foreign-born and Americanization classes were held at the local YMCA, where pressure was put on immigrants to learn English, adopt American dress, recipes, and to buy and use American goods. Immigrants were also encouraged to reject the religions of their homelands and adopt Protestant Christianity. Known as assimilation, this practice was and remains controversial for the ways in which it promoted white Protestant American culture as superior.

By 1919 the International Institute was also established to help the foreign born with naturalization, language, and information. These Institutes were a part of the YWCA and aimed to help immigrants with the wide variety of problems they faced. Importantly, the International Institute also worked to preserve immigrant culture and language, seeing it as a stabilizing force in people’s lives. They also sought to reduce the hostility of local native-born residents to immigrants by educating the native born about immigrant contributions and inviting them to celebrations and educational events that focused on immigrant life and culture.

African Americans lived alongside immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe in Gary’s poorest neighborhoods. Although there were four Settlement Houses in Gary, only one of them, the Stewart House, was created to serve African Americans. It opened in 1921. In 1922, state law in Indiana officially came to support racial segregation in the state’s schools. Between 1908 and 1947 in Gary, the school system has been described as one of “partial segregation.” Black students were almost entirely segregated for elementary education. At the high school level, there was one white school, Emerson. There was also Froebel School,which opened in 1912. It was an “experiment in progressive education,” with students of many nationalities and races in attendance. Many African Americans in Gary lived near Froebel School. It was the city’s first integrated school and was also one of the first integrated schools in the United States. Despite this, Black students faced significant racism and discrimination here, a situation historians have described as “virtual segregation.” Across the street from Froebel School, the public library built a branch and provided books in many languages as well as staffing a library within the school.

The Midtown (Central District) Area of Gary is a historic section of Gary which has been predominantly African American since the 1930s. Black owned and run businesses including El Frio Beverage, Mae’s Louisiana Kitchen Co., Vee-Jay Records, and many others were prominent here. North Gleason Park, St. John’s Hospital, and Means Manor also served the African American community. Roosevelt High School, which was dedicated in 1931 after attempts at meaningfully integrating Gary schools by the Black community failed, is also located in Midtown. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, Roosevelt High has many well-known alumni including Avery Brooks, William Marshall, Dick Barnett, Glenn Robinson, George Taliaferro, and Lee Calhoun. Some members of the Jackson Five even attended Roosevelt School and the house that the Jackson family lived in was next door to the school. Sports teams from Roosevelt High School won 20 Indiana Boys Track & Field Team State Championships and two Indiana Boys Basketball State Championships.

Mexican immigrants came to Gary in large numbers beginning during the 1919 Steel Strike. By 1930, there were 9,007 Mexican-born immigrants in Lake County, Indiana, which included the cities of Gary and East Chicago. Mexicans in Gary engaged significantly with the International Institute on what one historian has called a “comparatively egalitarian basis.” They became active participants and contributors to the Institute’s efforts in the city. While some Mexican immigrants to Gary first lived in company-owned boarding houses, by 1928, no Mexican workers lived in company-owned housing, choosing instead the poor conditions but greater freedoms on the city’s south side. When the Mexican consul in Chicago toured Gary in 1924, he described living conditions as “wretched.” Mexicans faced discrimination in housing, from employers, the police, and in attempts to socialize and form communal bonds with one another. In the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, Mexicans, most of whom retained citizenship in their country of origin, faced significant pressure to leave the United States. Historians have found that one-third of Mexicans (more than 400,000 people) were repatriated--that is, forced to return to Mexico--between 1929 and 1935 across the United States.